Company profile: Pindrop Security

Company Profile: Pindrop Security

Flagging Fraudulent Calls

Each type of handset and each telephone network have their own unique audio characteristics. Caller ID can be spoofed to indicate that a request for a new credit card or wire transfer of money is coming from Atlanta. But if the call is really coming from a Skype phone in Nigeria, Pindrop Security can tell.

Pindrop Security Executives(Left to right): Dr. Paul Judge - Pindrop Security Chairman; Vijay A. Balasubramaniyan - Pindrop Security CEO, CTO and Founder. Photo courtesy of Pindrop Security.

“We are trying to bring trust back to the telephone,” said Vijay Balasubramaniyan, who co-founded the company in 2011. “We extract about 147 different features from the audio of the call. These features uniquely identify the phone as well as what type of device is making the call and where in the world that call is coming from. That allows us to differentiate what is a legitimate call and what is a fraudulent call.”

Banks, financial institutions, retailers, and others now attempt to verify calls by asking for personal information: a caller’s home town, mother’s maiden name, or high school attended. In the old days, this information was known only to the callers, but thanks to the Internet and services such as Facebook, such personal data can be readily available to “fraudsters.”

Large companies are fighting these fraudsters by capturing their voiceprints and maintaining lists of bad phone numbers. But those work only after the first fraudulent call, and can be defeated if the fraudsters can alter their voices.

In the fall of 2010, Balasubramaniyan presented the concept of “acoustic fingerprinting” phone calls at a major computer security conference. He was joined by Mustaque Ahamad, then director of the Georgia Tech Information Security Center (GTISC), and Patrick Traynor, an associate professor in the Georgia Tech School of Computer Science. It ignited a frenzy of media coverage, which launched a flood of inquiries from banks and financial services companies.

Balasubramaniyan was then invited to present at a major financial services conference, which heightened the interest. “At that point, we knew we had a technology that could be commercialized,” he recalled.

Balasubramaniyan partnered with Paul Judge, a repeat entrepreneur who holds a Georgia Tech Ph.D., to co-found Pindrop.

The company worked with Georgia Tech’s VentureLab program, which helps faculty members and research staff commercialize technology developed in research labs.

The company also got assistance with a proposal to the National Science Foundation for a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant, which provided early funding to help develop the product. More assistance came from the Georgia Research Alliance, which offered seed funding, and Flashpoint, a Georgia Tech program that accelerates the growth of technology companies.

“Atlanta has good ideas and technical geniuses who deserve a global stage,” said Judge. “My focus is working to turn a good idea into a great company.”

The success path led to ATDC, which helped connect Pindrop to a broad range of resources.

“ATDC has constantly helped us to be bigger than we actually are,” said Balasubramaniyan. “When you are dealing with really large banks, you want great conference rooms and office space. You want a great look and feel for when you bring customers to your offices. ATDC has helped significantly with that.”

Balasubramaniyan previously worked for leading technology companies such as Siemens and Intel. At those companies, he helped build network management software and other commercially important applications following a clear solution map.

“When I came to Georgia Tech, I was working on purely hard problems, really difficult problems for which the solutions weren’t clear,” he said. “At Pindrop, we have this unique opportunity to work on problems that are not only hard, but also meaningful. To hear our customers talk about situations where we have protected somebody’s life savings or somebody’s retirement account, on a day-to-day basis, that is what makes this job really meaningful.”

Balasubramaniyan credits the company’s success to its hardworking staff – and the great research done in the College of Computing and GTISC. Pindrop has hired a number of Georgia Tech graduates.

“When we hire people from Georgia Tech, they live and breathe security, so they understand what it is to write secure code,” he said. “They understand what it is to protect a financial institution from account takeover.”

His advice to other technology startups: “As soon as you think you have a viable business and a suitable product market fit, that’s the time to engage with ATDC.”